Science-ing Ceramics in the Southern Andes

Erik J. MarshCecilia Frigolé, and Rosa Moyano  from Laboratorio de Paleo-Ecología Humana and Facultad de Ciencias Exactas y Naturales write the final entry in the series dedicated to The Senses and Aesthetics of Archaeological Science. Responses follow from co-editors of the issue, Andrew Roddick and Colleen Morgan.

 Science-ing Ceramics in the Southern Andes

Erik J. Marsh, Cecilia Frigolé, and Rosa Moyano

Here in Mendoza, Argentina, the last few years have been lively times for science-ing ceramics. Besides the classic field interactions with sherds during survey and excavation, we have been exploring a variety of laboratory approaches to ceramics, such as petrography, experimental reproductions, Atomic Absorption Spectrophotometry (AAS), and X-ray Fluorescence (XRF). The basic idea is to identify materials used by potters and to see if they were made locally or not.

One central problem is mobility. Beginning around two-thousand years ago, hunter–gatherers (or pastoralists?) in the region started using ceramics and should have become sedentary… but didn’t. Continuing to hunt and now with llama herds, they stuck to their seasonal comings and goings through and over the Andes. It seems that they saw these high and foreboding mountains as less of a barrier and more of a conduit. The laboratory’s working hypothesis is that many of the settlements near Mendoza were seasonally occupied by people who spent the rest of the year on the other side of the Andes.

Were potters traveling with raw materials or finished vessels? From where and how far? Or did they not bring anything with them and make new vessels with local materials?

It is not simple to identify potting ingredients from archaeological sherds. Potters move around, collect materials from different places, and mix them together. The materials themselves could be geological mixtures. A kiln’s heat renders a transformation that turns the whole into more than the sum of the parts. Only then is a vessel used for cooking, storage, and transport.

Deciphering a potter’s recipe is like savoring a rich Bolognese sauce. Can you taste the basil? The subtle rosemary? Or was it a unique combination of flavors? The spices might not even matter that much, but instead how much time it spent simmering. Great cooks say the secret is love and tears, just like archaeological field and lab work.

Figure 1. Thin section with metamorphic temper from ARQ-18.
Figure 1. Thin section with metamorphic temper from ARQ-18.

First, we tried to identify individual recipe ingredients. For example, near a high-altitude archaeological site in the Province of San Juan, we fired and tested locally available clays, none of which could produce vessels similar to the high-quality archaeological sherds. Using the laboratory’s petrographic microscope, we identified metamorphic temper (Figure 1); this was unusual because there are no metamorphic outcroppings in the area. Turning to geological maps we identified possible sources of this temper, the closest of which was over 50 km from the site. Neither the temper nor the clay seemed to be local, and the geological map gave us an idea of where potters acquired (and probably made) this vessel.

Second, we experimented with methods that offer composite chemical signatures of the total recipe, AAS and XRF. Relative proportions of trace elements were compared in archaeological and experimental vessels, which have in some cases were similar or different enough to infer local or non-local production. Most pottery in the region is undecorated, so we focused on distinguishing paste types and elements.

AAS results can be directly compared to those from portable XRF instruments. These “pistols” are very expedient for large samples, even though the sensitivity and data resolution is much lower than with neutron activation. A few months ago we ran our first sets of portable XRF analyses with the help of a team that has been using this approach with obsidian for many years, part of long-standing collaboration with Michael Glascock and the MURR archaeometry laboratory.

Figure 2. The XRF team in the recently christened Laboratory of Human Paleo-Ecology. The portable XRF unit and the screen with the dancing chemical curves are to the right, and the players, from back to front, are Ramiro Barberena, Michael Glascock, Valeria Cortegoso, and Martín Giesso. Víctor Durán was hiding in this photo, but couldn't escape the journalist. Thanks for all your help and support.
Figure 2. The XRF team in the recently christened Laboratory of Human Paleo-Ecology. The portable XRF unit and the screen with the dancing chemical curves are to the right, and the players, from back to front, are Ramiro Barberena, Michael Glascock, Valeria Cortegoso, and Martín Giesso. Víctor Durán was hiding in this photo, but couldn’t escape the visiting reporter. Thanks for all your help and support.

After convincing the obsidian freaks to let us have a turn (Figure 2), we ran XRF analyses of clays, experimental vessels, and archaeological sherds. In these preliminary tests, we wanted to control for a few potential sources of variability, so we ran analyses on different parts of sherds (interior, exterior, and profile) and with different pre-treatments (direct from the field and unwashed, washed with distilled water, cut and sanded profiles). Our impression was that these factors had little impact on the overall patterns.

While running the tests, we watched in real time as X-rays bounced back and forth. The chemical curves bumped and flowed, and seemed to be telling us that there were at least two different chemical signatures for pastes and clear differences in paints and slips (we will see if this is borne out by a proper treatment of the data!). This informal interaction with the ceramics and X-rays generated ideas, speculation, and discussion in the laboratory. Far from the visceral experience of excavating the sherds, here it felt like we were collectively working on the subjective crux of the scientific method—generating hypotheses, inspired ideas, or sometimes just fancy guesswork. The laboratory experience gave us enough space to speculate creatively without knowing the results. This aspect of the multi-faceted craft of archaeology seems to have enriched potential interpretations of the yet-to-be-seen final numbers.

As results from different analyses begin to come back, we hope to savor some of the spices in the recipe and detect how potters mixed and matched them. By comparing and contrasting methods, we hope to tease out patterns and identify the most effective methods for different situations. These patterns are important pieces of the puzzle of the movements and practices of Mendoza’s ancient potters.

Recipes of the past: In and Out of the Laboratory

Andrew Roddick

In their short piece Marsh, Frigolé, and Moyano present the research they have been conducting into Argentine ceramics. Drawing on analytical techniques from the geosciences to identify minerals and trace elements, the authors are interested in exploring trade interactions of population around Mendoza. They suggest we think of research into pottery paste recipes as analogous to “savoring a rich Bolognese sauce.” As a fellow ceramicist, I couldn’t agree more. The use of “recipe” for the constituents of ceramic pastes is useful, and one that has been used for quite some time.

Pottery sherd from Late Formative highland Bolivia showing the mineral constituents of a paste recipe.
Pottery sherd from Late Formative highland Bolivia
showing the mineral constituents of a paste recipe.

As it is our last post on the sensorial in archaeological science, I’d like to tease out the sensorial elements a bit further. The authors in this post suggest that the work in the laboratory is far from the visceral aspects of excavation, suggesting that the lab is a unique kind of scientific space. Given the previous blogs in this series, I do wonder if that’s quite right.

“Archaeology relies on the embodied expertise of individuals, but the common perception of ‘good science’ within the broader scientific community and among the general public is that science is impersonal. Paying more attention to how archaeologists do, in fact, produce knowledge in the field would require drawing attention to the centrality of embodied expertise to archaeological practice.” (Leighton 2015)

Their use of the Bolognese analogy does do some important sensory work for us. As any decent cook will tell you, your recipes is right when it smells, tastes right, and when the texture feels and even sounds right. Similarly, and as mentioned in a previous post, the sensorial elements involved in the production of pottery must go beyond the visual. Many of the technological choices might be linked to other elements. The potters I have been spending my time with stress that the final product must sound right to sell. This past summer I watched for hours in local markets as vendors (who sell but did not produce the vessels themselves) demonstrated the quality of the recipes by demonstrating the hardness, texture and sound of the cooking pots.

Pottery vendor in La Paz, Bolivia demonstrating her procedure (but common to all vendors and many buyers), which involves the use of a safety pin to check for proper texture and sound.
Pottery vendor in La Paz, Bolivia demonstrating her procedure (but common to all vendors and many buyers), which involves the use of a safety pin to check for proper texture and sound.

Taste is similarly at work in the use life of a vessel. This can include for instance, the tasting of clays by producers, and perhaps the smell of souring clays. But it is also about how the fabric interacts with the food being consumed.   For instance, I have spoken with women who travelled vast distances specifically to buy a particular pot from a particular potter, claiming that they simply taste better in pots from this community. In the American Southwest, Pueblo potters produce waterproof micaceous vessels, glittery vessels that please the eyes. However, many still seal the vessels with oil as a final component of the recipe to keep food from tasting too earthy (Trimble 1993: 33). Marsh et al. stresses that a kiln transforms clay into something distinct and new. So too does a lifetime (or more) of use of a particular vessel. Such old, cheap, yet cherished things look, cook and taste different.

A cooking pot that has been used for three generations in the highlands of Bolivia. “Simplemente tiene mejor sabor!” (It just has a better taste!)

As always, some of these sensory elements may initially appear too fragmentary to access, but there are some research lines beginning to explore these possibilities. My current Master’s student is working to combine paleoethnobotany and ceramics to explore foodways through pots. She is finding an exciting scholarship of microarchaeology and lipid analysis, but also of ceramic technology and ancient recipes – both on particular continents and associated with specific technologies. This, of course, permits those in the field house, the classroom, or even the brewhouse to enjoy new tastes and perspectives on the past.

Such approaches, however, are also providing new kinds of questions for those of us investigating the movement of pre-Columbian ceramics: Were potters moving pots because of different tastes in vessels or foods? Did they get drawn into a distinct sensory environment when they were deployed? Like Colleen Morgan’s comments below, I wonder if such admittedly creative questions are answerable. But I do believe (and as the posts in this series clearly demonstrate) it is useful to both reflect on both our own embodied expertise as well as that of the people we wish to know in the past.

Leighton, Mary
2015 Excavation methodologies and labour as epistemic concerns in the practice of archaeology. Comparing examples from British and Andean archaeology. Archaeological Dialogues 22 (1): 65-88.

The Creativity of Potheads

Colleen Morgan

Why would you carry a pot?

Would you carry something in it? What could you carry in a pot that you couldn’t carry in a basket? A wooden box? A perfectly dried gourd? Do you need it to make something? Something special?

How would you carry a pot?

Would you lash it to your llama? Make your child carry the pot, carry it very carefully up the mountain? Put it in a sack? Wear it like a hat? Can it stack with other pots?

What is your pot worth?

Is it worth more because your mother made it? Is it worth less because one of the handles was knocked off when you got up in the middle of the night to see what the dog was barking at? Is it replaceable? Can you work up another one in an hour? A day? Is there a fortnight of planning, gathering materials, firing your kiln, appeasing some capricious god of ceramics that bursts your pots at the seams?

What is your pot?

Do you take personal pride in the pot? Do the thumbprints and faint decorations wind a story around your senses? Or is it like a pair of socks? So much temper and finely ground clay, a bit of water, there you go. Is it seen as a separate entity from you at all, or is it part of a galaxy of objects that move around in your daily life, pushing and pulling on your flesh, your self? Is it as much part of you as your eyebrows? Is it as much part of your kin group as it is part of you? Is it an alien creature that emerges from the fire, threatening, barely tamed?

It’s probably for the best that I don’t study pottery.

The questions above fall somewhere between testable and questionable, probably a stretch from what is it made of and subsequently what does it mean. Many scientists get very impatient with such nebulous brainstorming, unwilling to venture into the clouds above Hawkes’ Ladder of Inference. The patient scientists will explain that using current methods we can’t know for certain and it would be difficult to speculate.

My favorite scientists will turn over the pot, put it on their head, and say: “it’s possible.” Then: “how could we test for that?”

I was encouraged to read that such creative speculation was winging around in the lab with Marsh, Frigolé, and Moyano as they contemplated the potters of Mendoza. After the long delay in the publication of this post, they might even have a few of the “final numbers” that they are looking for. Rather than constricting possibilities, sourcing results can open up a whole new range of questions, and that is the joy of materials science in archaeology.


The Scene of Disciplined Seeing

Shanti Morell-Hart from McMaster University writes the third entry in the series dedicated to The Senses and Aesthetics of Archaeological Science. Responses follow from co-editors of the issue, Andrew Roddick and Colleen Morgan.

The Scene of Disciplined Seeing

Shanti Morell-Hart

“What is the most AMAZING thing you’ve ever found?” This is the question dogging archaeologists, right now, this very second, while we sit on planes, wait in doctors’ offices, and visit school classrooms. There are two common types of answers: the sensational kind, and the kind with intellectual merit. If you’re lucky, these overlap in a perfect Venn region, maybe something like an ancient golden statue depicting rare sexual acts in Pharaonic Egypt (that also happens to transform the way we understand ancient Egyptian sexuality and expands the known range of gender performatives).

I used to go for intellectual merit right off the bat. I’d start: “One time, I found this really old Nicotiana seed—that’s tobacco, maybe tabacum or rustica—it was a lot stronger back then, not like the stuff now that people smoke for fun. Anyway, it was in this flotation sample I was sorting through—really beautiful reticulated surface, there’s no mistaking it….” I’d trail off, lamely. I would see vague disappointment shifting into obvious disappointment. The Latin binomials were alienating; also, smoking kills. I’d clear my throat and give it another try: “Uh, so there was also this time where I was excavating a tomb with a team in Peru and we found a sacrificed baby llama that still had a leash around its neck….”

Somehow it’s easier to explain life-sized things than microscopic things, to talk from a shared mind’s eye. It’s easier to evoke a scalar perspective-in-common, where you’re staring at something the listener can (virtually) point at and poke at along with you. It’s also easier to generate interest in the kind of findings that would hit tabloids if they took place in the contemporary world.

The intrinsically exciting Nicotiana (tobacco): an archaeological seed. (Photo by the author.)

For paleoethnobotanists, it can be hard to express the excitement of the find. What gets us into it? In my case, I was interested in food, I wanted to be able to analyze food residues myself, and I didn’t want to deal with roadkill for my reference collections (so sorry, zooarchaeologists). This meant learning the trade of paleoethnobotany, with long hours at the microscope and a rich payoff in plants.

Plant payoffs, moving from the microbotanical to the practical:

The work of paleoethnobotany takes place at many scales: the monumental (wooden Viking longboats), the macro (woven yucca sandals), the micro (grass starches on Neanderthal teeth), and the chemical (theobromine signatures of chocolate). For those of us lodged at the microscopic level– a realm of seeds, phytoliths, pollen, and starch grains– the practice of archaeology holds a special set of practices and problems. We experience back pain, eye strain, headaches, tendonitis, and even ganglion cysts. Health issues related to the ergonomics of microscope use can be found in a variety of places) but the neurological effects are less well documented. I suspect a wide range from mild discomfort to madness.

But the visceral experience of microscopic practice is not all discomfort and tedium. We are also drawn into exotic and mysterious worlds. The first time I peeked into a microscope while sorting flotation residue, I felt like Jacques Cousteau. My god, the things in dirt. We take germs on faith and most of us have seen earthworms up close. We know–or are pretty sure we know–those things are in there. But there is so much more to see. Never mind the chemistry of it all, which is way outside my pay range.

Macrobotanical under microscope
Charred wood, seeds, insect legs, modern rootlets, egg casings, and god knows what else, in a macrobotanical flotation sample.

If looking at flotation samples is like scuba diving, studying microbotanical remains is like flying through another galaxy. Extracted sediment and artifact residues, suspended in liquid and mounted on slides, present strange psychedelia. Acrocomia mexicana endocarp phytoliths appear as planets; Zea mays starch grains as 1960s beanbag chairs.

Rorschach test #1: Coyol palm (Acrocomia mexicana) phytoliths, viewed at 100x. (Photo by the author)
Rorschach test #2: maize (Zea mays) starch grains viewed at 400x with polarized light.  (Photo by the author.)
Rorschach test #2: maize (Zea mays) starch grains viewed at 400x with polarized light. (Photo by the author.)

Visually, you feel suspended alongside the residues. Your eyesight becomes disarticulated from the regular workings of your body. An awkward shift in physicality takes place. Your normal manual dexterity is fitted with giant clown hands to manipulate objects smaller than you can see with the naked eye. Trying to get silicified plant cells to roll over, to view their 3-D morphology, involves some measure of agility and some measure of luck. Gently depressing the slide with a blunted probe will sometimes get phytoliths to rotate, but not always. Yelling at the slide is futile. The last thing you need is to turn the microremains against you.

While at the microscope, the miniscule becomes “life-sized,” and you experience a set of layered realnesses. You sense an envelope of lab smells (dust, mysterious liquids evaporating from jars, someone’s leftover pasta cooking in the microwave), gossip (who shortchanged who last beer night), podcasts and music (strains of Finntroll coming from the speakers), temperature (always overly warm). But your eyes are in another place, a here and not-here; or two half-real places. It’s almost like playing a videogame. Although the meatspace houses the bodily you, sitting at a microscope, your findings are actually taking place in an entirely different location: microscospace.

The “scene of disciplined seeing” (to borrow a phrase from Dennis (1989:342) is part embodied discipline, with all the necessities of proper posture and focus. It is also part disciplinary perspective, with all its rules, affordances, expectations, and perspectives. Early use of the microscope by the 17th century British Royal Society was a unifying endeavor. If we are to believe Robert Hooke, it was a way of “exceeding the Ancients” through scientific labor. At that time, according to Michael Dennis, “instruments imparted a distinct sense of the past and the future, uniting men holding otherwise diverse philosophical positions” (1989:310). Modern archaeologists, however, take to this same instrument intending to connect the past with the present, and our pursuits can divide people holding otherwise similar philosophical positions. (One example: the current philosophical centrification of STEM disciplines [including archaeological science] across political divides, yet persistent denial of evidence of anthropogenic climate disruption recovered by these same disciplines.)

What is the role of disciplined seeing outside of archaeological science? Early appetites for micrographic images—Hooke’s 1665 volume Microphagia was a certified bestseller—are not what they once were. The fruits of disciplined seeing are no longer exclusively harvested through the magnanimity of the Royal Society. Basic instrumentation has become affordable. Gentlemen scholars under moneyed noble patrons are no longer the sole gatekeepers of every microscopic finding. The ready availability of scientific instrumentation has helped to democratize scientific practice, and microscopic images can even be captured and posted using smartphones.

These are all welcome changes. But the “watering down” of academic imagery has made it harder to evoke the excitement of archaeological science through the simple presentation of pictures. Representation, through interpretation, helps to elicit such excitement. This is not a simple process. Representation is subject to other rules and expectations, including those of anthropology and the public. Ultimately, our seeing is disciplined by visual, experiential, academic, and political fields, and our findings are only as relevant as our audiences allow them to be.

So how can we recapture that magical Venn region where the sensational and the academic merge? Maybe the answer is “blog posts.”

Bourdieu, Pierre
1993      The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature. Columbia University Press.

Cooke, Bill, Carol Christiansen and Lena Hammarlund
2002      Viking Woollen Square-Sails and Fabric Cover Factor. The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 32(2):202-210.

Crown, Patricia L. and W. Jeffrey Hurst
2009      Evidence of Cacao Use in the Prehispanic American Southwest. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106(7):2110-2113.

Dennis, Michael Aaron
1989      “Graphic Understanding: Instruments and interpretation in Robert Hooke’s Micrographia”. Science in Context 3 (2): 309–364.

Henry, Amanda G., Alison S. Brooks and Dolores R. Piperno
2011      Microfossils in Calculus Demonstrate Consumption of Plants and Cooked Foods in Neanderthal Diets (Shanidar III, Iraq; Spy I and II, Belgium). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108(2):486-491.

Hooke, Robert
1665      Micrographia: or, Some physiological descriptions of minute bodies made by magnifying glasses. J. Martyn and J. Allestry, London, UK.

Latour, Bruno
1988      The Pasteurization of France. Harvard, Cambridge, MA.

Morell-Hart, Shanti, Rosemary A. Joyce and John S. Henderson
2014      Multi-Proxy Analysis of Plant Use at Formative Period Los Naranjos, Honduras. Latin American Antiquity 25(1):65-81.

Morgan, Colleen Leah
2012      Emancipatory Digital Archaeology. Ph.D. Dissertation, University of California, Berkeley.

Turpin, Solveig A.
2003      Walking the Line: A Preliminary Sandal Chronology from Coahuila and Southwestern Texas. Journal of Big Bend Studies 15:27-53.

Disciplinary Vision, Disciplined Seeing, and New Technologies of Enchantment

Andrew Roddick

Shanti Morell-Hart’s contribution to “Then Dig” highlights the sense of excitement that can come from our engagement with instruments, ways of seeing that can catch not only our colleagues’ attention, but generated interest from students and the greater public. Morell-Hart shows that these technologies of enchantment (sensu Gell 1992) are modes of disciplinary and disciplined seeing, relying on particular mediated and trained ways to engage with our materials. She brings us into her piece through the familiar anecdote of the typical conversations we encounter as archaeologists on planes and other public places. I imagine, however, many archaeologists have discussed with their undergraduates how our disciplinary way of seeing can bring into focus a range of multi-scalar phenomena, perhaps the multi-temporality of agricultural landscapes, the systems of garbage disposal within large cities, or the re-daubing of buildings in religious centers. A few of those interested students will follow us to the laboratory, to develop their disciplinary seeing into a form of “disciplined seeing”, whether within Morell-Hart’s paeleoethnobotany lab to identify phytoliths, or perhaps a lithics lab to record bulbs of percussion on pieces of obsidian.

As Morell-Hart demonstrates, technical ways of seeing always introduce issues of representations and translation. I remember several years ago at the Institute of Andean Studies Annual Meetings in Berkeley, the Andeanist Dr. Gary Urton was giving a public talk on the khipu, the knotted string technology used by the Inka. Despite detailed slides and well-explained graphs, a member of the public could not quite follow the way that Urton was seeing these knots. What followed was a difficult interchange between the two. The difficulty came down to the kinds of disciplined seeing that Dr. Urton has spent a career developing from a wide variety of disciplines. In other words, despite his careful lecture, there still remained some presupposition that the audience and the presenter shared a particular way of seeing.

I like Morell-Hart’s use of the concept of “disciplined seeing”, and appreciate her highlighting of Dennis’ interesting article. Dennis clearly shows that for Hooke, the microscope could reveal the power of human art, but it also brought into harsh contrast the difference between products of culture and products of nature. Unlike an archaeologist, Hooke had little time for artifacts: “There are but few Artificial things that are worth observing with a Micro­scope …. For the Productions of art are such rude and mis-shapen things, that when view’d with a Microscope, there is little else observable, but their deformity …. And the most smooth and burnished surfaces appear most rough and unpolisht. (Hooke [1665] 1961: 8; quoted from Dennis 1989: 335). In stark contrast were the divine details seen in natural objects. The argument was that the scientist was a “transparent observer” – here there was no interpretation at the ocular lens. Rather nature revealed the purity of god (I suspect Hooke might spend some time with Morell-Hart’s statement “My god, the things in dirt!”). But it did require a sort of “disciplined seeing”, a standardization of perceptions gained through reason disciplining the experience won through the senses.

As Morell-Hart demonstrates, this notion of disciplined seeing might benefit from further reflection in archaeological science, a set of conversations around not just the microscope, but a range of instrumentations and their mediations within archaeological practice. In taking up Morell-Hart’s provocative riff on Hooke, I’m just as interested in where the scene of disciplined seeing are emerging in new forms of technical archaeological practice. She points to the relatively low tech of smart-phones, and how this democratization might also include the “watering down” of academic imagery (although if the petrography community on social media and Flickr is any indication, I think I’ve seen the opposite!). So let me briefly go to the other end of the spectrum to the high-tech, where the cost and learning curve results in some inevitable gatekeeping, but where we see the emergence of new kinds of “disciplined seeing”.

Then Dig_Roddick (May)_-1
Working towards a disciplined form of seeing a CT-scan of a ceramic vessel at Sustainable Archaeology at the University of Western Ontario

For the past few months I have been visiting Sustainable Archaeology at the University of Western Ontario for a pilot study of CT-scanning ethnographic and archaeological pottery. There are, in some ways, rather crude objects, things that surely Hooke would disparage. But flying through artifacts at the tiniest of scales is an amazing thing, and this truly is an area where the sensational and the academic merge. For instance, I challenge you not to be amazed at the CT scan of this charred piece of a deciduous hardwood. Or better yet, of a 16th-century Northern European wooden prayer bead, with an interior showing the Last Judgment. Surely even Hooke, who suggested cultural materials had no mysteries within them, would be impressed! But while we can enjoy the voyage through other artifacts, my work requires more than passive enjoyment, and the difficulties of developing a disciplined form of seeing is quite clear with this technology.

I am interested in using micro-CT scanning as a way to probe the traces of skill involved in the production of archaeological ceramics, and we are struggling to figure out a way to compare large datasets. While my interests lie in the images and the interpretations, those working so hard to develop a systematic approach of this amazing technology to archaeological materials (Greene and Hartley 2007; Jansen et al. 2001; Kahl and Ramminger 2012; Sanger et al. 2013) impress me. What standardized protocols can be developed? How must we standardize the software but also our perceptions to create working typologies? What kinds of analytical filters and image analysis program are required to highlight not just Hooke’s divine natural world, but also the complexities of the cultural? Like Morell-Hart, I still need my plane conversation for the greater public (I always go back to either the 2,500 year old red painted skull we found in 2001, or the perfectly preserved 1,500 year old potato), but this emergence of a new way of seeing is also part of the excitement of archaeological science. It is here that we can see the “rules, affordances, expectations, and perspectives” develop, and reflect on our connections and divergences in scientific practice since Robert Hooke’s days. Like the camera or microscope, these are technologies of enchantment that can have powerful effects on our imaginations.

Gell, A.
1992 ‘The technology of enchantment and the enchantment of technology’, in J. Coote and A. Shelton (eds), Anthropology, Art, Aesthetics. Oxford: Clarendon Press, pp. 40–67.

Greene, A. and C. Hartley
2007 From Analog to Digital: Protocols and Program for a Systematic Digital Radiography of Archaeological Pottery. Eur. Meet. Ancient Ceramics.

Jansen, R. J., H.F.W. Koens, C.W. Neeft, and J. Stoker
2001 Scenes From the Past CT in the Archaeologic Study of Ancient Greek Ceramics1. Radiographics 21 (2): 315-321.       

Kahl, W.-A., and B. Ramminger
2012 Non-destructive Fabric Analysis of Prehistoric Pottery Using High-resolution X-ray Microtomography: A Pilot Study on the Late Mesolithic to Neolithic Site Hamburg-Boberg. Journal of Archaeological Science 39 (7): 2206-2219.\

Sanger, M., J. Thostenson, M. Hill, and H. Cain
2013 Fibrous Twists and Turns: Early Ceramic Technology Revealed Through Computed Tomography. Appl Phys A 111:829-839.

Disciplined Visualization

Colleen Morgan

Last week during one of our Heritage & Play sessions–a series of workshops at the University of York loosely structured around a topic, theory, or making session using play as a productive means to engage with heritage–we tried out an Oculus Rift. After previously trying out Google Glass and Google Cardboard, most of us preferred mixed reality, not a fully (or at least visually) immersive experience. As Morell-Hart describes her immersion in the microscopic world, we were similarly between worlds– while surrounded by a virtual Tuscan villa, we would still be talking to other Heritage & Play participants, still partly present in the classroom.

I’ve found the concept of telepresence to be very useful in describing such situations, or, where you are when you are talking on the phone (Morgan 2009). Not really with the person you are talking to, but not entirely within the place where you happen to be while you are talking on the phone. While we were using the Oculus Rift, participants felt like they were farther away from other people in the room. I find this similar to archaeological investigation, wherein we are not entirely in the present, nor are we entirely in the past. The boundedness of social persons, our subjectivity, is thrown into question through the delegation of perception to technological mediation.

As a digital archaeologist, my primary mode of research is translating disciplined seeing into disciplined visualization. I am challenged by Roddick’s example of the public unintelligibility of the khipu–what kind of intervention could have made Urton’s interpretation obvious? Could we create a 3D reconstruction of the khipu that would be navigable at the microscale, showing the warp of the threads, highlighting the intervals of the knots, annotated by Urton? How can we create data-rich interpretive media that do not fetishize technology but productively use them to show how we see?

Finally, though I consider myself still very oriented toward excavation as my preferred way of archaeological performance, I have spent relatively little time in the field versus behind a computer screen. My “finds” these days are more related to interpretive projects and the links between genetics, bioarchaeology, virtual reconstructions, and avatars. These excite me, but make for hard plane conversations, so I usually revert to the heyday of my time behind a trowel and describe murals and various dead things. So in this I may be failing my own remit–can I create a remediation of my visualization process that will enchant an audience as much as scraping the dirt?

Louder Than Orange: a chromosonic sense of archaeological usewear photography

Our second entry in The Senses and Aesthetics of Archaeological Science comes from Brian Boyd, at Columbia University. Responses follow from co-editors of the issue, Andrew Roddick and Colleen Morgan.


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Louder Than Orange: a chromosonic sense of archaeological usewear photography

 Brian Boyd

You are looking at a series of colour photographs of the surfaces and edges of worked bone artefacts (pointed objects) from the Late Epipalaeolithic (Late Natufian) levels at Hayonim Terrace, Western Galilee (Israel). They were made and used around 11 thousand years ago. The artefacts that is, not the photographs. The photographs were taken during 1994 and 1995 in the East Building of the McDonald Institute, University of Cambridge, using a Leica Wild Photmakroskop M400 stereo microscope with a Schott KL1500-T light source, to which was attached a Leica Wild MPS52 camera operated by a Wild MPS46 Photautomat. The light source used was an Instralux 6000. The film used was Fuji Reala (ASA 100). The purpose of this microscopy and photography was to identify microscopic traces of the manufacture and use of the objects. You can read all about this research in detail HERE.

Directly beneath the photographs you are reading a series of observations, interpretations and speculations based upon the results of the microscopic and photographic analyses.

Together, the above photographs and descriptions were presented as a visual contribution to an exhibit mounted at the May 2014 Theoretical Archaeology Group conference (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) titled “The Archaeologist as Artist: research photography in a new context”, organized by Kaeleigh Herstad and Elizabeth Konwest. I called the piece “The Points of No Return”, in reference to articles by Ofer Bar-Yosef and Anna Belfer-Cohen in which they argued that the Epipalaeolithic Natufian “culture” was the “point of no return” on the social evolutionary trajectory towards settled agricultural life in the Levant around 10,000 years ago (Bar-Yosef & Belfer-Cohen 1989, 2000).

But the real point of the piece was to think about the use of colour in usewear photography of archaeological artefacts. Microwear photographs are usually black and white. Obviously the financial restrictions of most publications is a major issue here, but there are other interesting theoretical considerations to explore. Do colour usewear images give us something more than black and white/greyscale photographs in terms of analytical and interpretive value? On viewing the photographs, several TAG participants thought they were abstract pictures of landscapes, perhaps computer-enhanced aerial shots of ancient fields and river terraces. This got me thinking about colour studies in archaeology.

In the 1980s, we were told “archaeologists don’t attempt a technicolor version of man’s early life” (Binford 1983). So what does this early life look like once all the colours have been drained away? Another TAG session (Stanford 2009) on “The color of things”, and Jones & MacGregor’s Colouring the Past (2002), worked to address this problem. Both however highlight the conventional archaeological focus on colour – the use of pigments, dyes, colour in material culture studies, the colour of things, objects. Only occasionally do these studies go beyond the material and into the realms of what art historians, philosophers, industrial and organic chemists have long dealt with: the social lives of colours, the “mysteries” of colour.

Maybe in recent “sensory archaeology” we see a similar reaction to that of Wittgenstein – “colours spur us to philosophize”; a move away from the “boring” questions about colour (Taussig 2009) or a “chromophobia” (Batchelor 2000) towards a concern with perception, cognition, semiosis, language and signs, and so on.

Colour allows something else into the picture, or the narrative: the language available – saturation, luminosity. At the technological level – the tips and shafts of those bone points were often burned/heated to achieve a desired hardness, robustness, strength. They were worked not until they reached a certain temperature, but a certain colour. When an object reached that exact colour it was ready to be used, a brownish-black. If it starts to go white it’s too late, too brittle. In the discussion to Jones & MacGregor (2002), Chris Scarre called for not only colouring the past, but also making it sound. The sound/noise of manufacture/production: scraping, sharpening, polishing. The two media are entwined in a sound/colour relationship, witness C.S. Peirce’s “red trumpets”, Winston Smith’s (Orwell’s) “yellow note”. Kristin Hersh’s “louder than orange”. A chromosonic sense of objects emerges.

Techniques of sensing (and sensing techniques) in and out of the laboratory

Andrew Roddick

Moments before setting down to read Brian Boyd’s contribution I finished giving a lecture in my class “Religion and Power in the Past”. In this course we are exploring ritual and religion through archaeology, in essence flipping Hawkes’ well-known inferential ladder. For the past week and a half we have been considering the potential for a “sensory archaeology”. To encourage students to question the visual dominance of our narratives, we watch an extract from the film Perfume (, a film which encourages the viewer to consider the multi-sensorial. (Is this is what the past looks like if the color has not been drained away, but also if the sounds and smells are re-inserted?) We then discuss Classen’s study of Andean and Amazonian sensory orders, before moving to some archaeological case studies including the sound and touch of South African rock art, auditory archaeology in the Britain and Peruvian highlands, and the tastes of colonial Africa.

Boyd similarly engages with a multi-sensorial past, from the chromatic richness of projectile points to the potential acoustic elements of their production. He specifically enters this discussion from the perspective of the microscope, a technological extension of the senses that “channels perception along modality-specific lines” (Howes 2013). Boyd shows how such a focus on the microscopic can blind us to obvious variation in color, and its related analytical and interpretive value. But even more interesting to me is his suggestion that we must push our analysis of tool production to a larger sensory realm, to consider also the sounds, and even tastes of particular material practices. Those of us working at the microscope might also consider, for instance, potters tasting and smelling their clays, a common practice in many potting regions today, and not altogether different from the practices of modern geologists, who sniff and taste rocks to seek out the presence of minerals such as sulfur, halite, sylvite, and kaolonite.

potters' clay-1
The colors of potting clay in highland Bolivia…but what about their taste?

In a recent chapter, Krysta Ryzewski (2013) explores how the traces of sensory perceptions might be explored in crafted iron goods from historic Rhode Island. Much like Boyd, she suggests a sensory archaeology have real consequences for those exploring the microscopic, impacting not only our interpretations, but shifting the very questions we ask. For instance, “what happens to conventional models of the chaîne opératoire (Leroi-Gourhan 1964) of forging an iron tool when the archaeologist is asked to account for concurrent sensory variables” (Ryzewski 2013: 359)? Drawing on Ingold’s “textility of making” (2010), she discuss the sensory aspects of iron working: “How material properties are harnessed by the ironworker and made to interact in the process of making—as the iron is exposed to heat, to repeated blows from the hammer, and to flux and as decisions are made by the experienced crafts-person—exemplifies the relations between material properties, sensory clues, and the reading of these clues by the craftsperson. All of these decisions must mix with each other effectively in the generative process of making an iron object successfully.” (Ryzewski 2013: 360)

Boyd makes an important step in critically reflecting on the multi-sensorial aspects of his projectile points, at both the macro and micro-scale. Ryzewski argues that micrographs of various iron artifacts reveal microstructures, but also larger sensorial engagements. Ryzewski suggests that the details gained through the microscope must be re-inserted into practice. She explores such a step by combining her laboratory analyses with experimental work, taking part in a form of apprenticeship in practice (see also Keller and Keller 1996; Lave 2011): “[T]o understand how the crafts-person follows materials in his or her work, so too must those who study that work also study the material. In other words, as the archaeologist joins and follows forces and lows of material that bring the form of work into being through countless sensory mediations, the micrograph, in this case, invites the viewer to join the craftsperson and the archaeologist as a fellow traveler.” (Ryzewski 2013: 364) Much as Ouzman (2001) asks about the relationship of rock engravings in South Africa to the nearby “gong rocks”, perhaps we too need to widen our understanding of a truly contextual archaeological science, to consider the larger landscape of practice and senses associated with production. To understand the sensorial and embodied experiences of production, we must send our findings back out from the laboratory.

Howes, David
2013 The Expanding Field of Sensory Studies.

Ingold, Timothy
2010 The Textility of Making. Cambridge Journal of Economics 34:91–102.

Keller, Charles M. and Janet Dixon Keller
1998   Cognition and Tool Use: The Blacksmith at Work Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Lave, Jean
2011   Apprenticeship in Critical Ethnographic Practice University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.

Ouzman, Sven
2001   Seeing Is Deceiving: Rock Art and the Non-visual. World Archaeology 33(2):237-256.

Ryzewski, Krysta
2013   The Production Process as Sensory Experience: Making and Seeing Iron in Colonial New Englad, In Making Sense of the Past: Toward a Sensory Archaeology. Edited by Jo Day, pp. 351-370. Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale.


Colleen Morgan

Zoom in/Zoom out - shot at Dhiban, Jordan, 2009.
Zoom in/Zoom out – shot at Dhiban, Jordan, 2009.

Archaeological photography has woven a bright ribbon through the last decade of my research; in my thesis I discussed photography as a way to understand the affordances of media making and the digital turn within archaeology, mixing theory and practice as part of a methodology based partly on critical making. The above photograph is an example of such work–the object of interested is highlighted in black and white, the serious, publication format for archaeological finds. The frame for the object is messy technicolor chaos, the kind that I would usually wave my hands about, insisting that it was tidied away before any kind of photography took place.

But I liked it, the small, “scientific,” desaturated moment surrounded by all of the don’ts in archaeological photography. The shadow, the context folder, dirt, the bucket full of finds, sample bags in a radiating halo, exhausted student archaeologist leaning against a broken ashlar–it’s a tongue-in-cheek comment on the context of this scientific photograph. Art historian Frederick Bohrer states that “at its most scientific, archaeology seeks to approach the photographic image as document, not to look at the photograph so much as to look through it to the object pictured” (2011:26). This photograph invites a telescoping view–instead of taking the importance of the black and white object, with the totemistic scale placed in parallel for granted, it can be re-situated as a pause in action, a moment cut from the whole cloth of archaeological process.

Brian Boyd invites us into the technicolor dream of usewear photography, paired with captions of “observations, interpretations and speculations” such as “the point that was heated and pierced a cattle hide” and the “point that points to invisible evidence.” The usewear photos, arranged in a grid, are meaningless without captions, and Boyd chooses to forgo the tricks of analyses and didactic locative information and jumps straight into the story of these objects, the moment that these objects came alive through microscopic damage.

Boyd then goes on to consider color in usewear images. As he states, “microwear photographs are usually in black and white” due to the financial restrictions of publications–though this is becoming less of an issue as publication goes digital. Why not have both color and black and white? Why not have a version that contains a roll-over caption, or an animated GIF of the object in motion, showing the usewear from each side? Or a QR code leading to a download of the 3D scan of the object, to be directly loaded into your 3D printer, so that you can run your fingers over the plasticky, simulacra divots and ridges?

Yet black and white photography connotes a collection of past moments in visual technology, moments that drifted through photography, to film, to television, each eventually erupting into color like Dorothy in Oz. So perhaps archaeologists could and use black and white as a preferred visual mode of representation to better convey both our affinity for the past and our previous interpretations of the past. When presented side by side, old interpretations of the past could gray-out, flicker and tear, supplanted by the new, the colorful, the high-definition versions that will eventually convey their age through technological affordances.

Bohrer, F. N. (2011). Photography and archaeology. London: Reaktion Books.

The Beauty and Frustration of Single Moments, Frozen in Time

Our first entry in The Senses and Aesthetics of Archaeological Science comes from Lisa-Marie Shillito, at the University of Edinburgh. Responses follow from co-editors of the issue, Andrew Roddick and Colleen Morgan.

Lisa-Marie Shillito

It wasn’t until I became a micromorphologist that I understood how beautiful even the most unremarkable bit of earth can be, or that I truly understood context. I’ve previously described thin section micromorphology as ‘excavation under the microscope’ – observing deposits, describing their physical characteristics, determining the stratigraphic relationship between components, and reconstructing the processes by which they have formed (Shillito 2013). The sediments themselves become part of material culture. Produced as they are directly by human activity, understanding their mode of formation can aid in the interpretation of the activities that produced them.

The moment where you peer down the lens of the microscope and a picture comes into focus, you may find yourself glimpsing at that elusive ‘frozen moment in time’, a true single depositional event, preserved for prosperity between layers of glass. The moment where you can see the single layer of paint that was applied to a wall and subsequently covered and covered again; you can see the hand of the person that so carefully replastered and painted those walls over and over. The moment where you look at a sequence of floors and see a layer of fine dust less than 1mm thick that accumulated beneath a mat, the everyday dirt that escaped the fastidious sweeping of floors. Beyond buildings we may see the tell-tale undulations and orientations of particles within soft midden sediments that indicate where a person (or creature) once walked, perhaps taking a short cut to a neighbour over the way or making a rest stop to relieve themselves (we see evidence of that too…).

The closer we look, the more we see; the very process of examining archaeological deposits under the microscope gives a new understanding of the past. It is only by examining deposits at the microscale that you can gain a true understanding of ‘single context’ and how the tiny traces from individual activities combine to form cumulative palimpsests (to use the terminology of Bailey 2007) even in cases where we may think we have a ‘single’ context in the field. That moment you realise that ‘in situ’ is a relative concept, and materials we assume are intact have often undergone a series of post-depositional disturbances that have consequences for how they can be interpreted. At one magnification we may be looking at an event that occurred within a single moment; change magnifications and suddenly the temporal resolution shifts.

The implications of Schiffer’s ideas on formation processes are frustratingly obvious at the microscale. How can we really link that date with that artefact, when even in the same layer some small creature has come along and mixed things up a little? And how do we even know this disturbance has happened without using the microarchaeological eye? These processes occur more often than not, yet without microarchaeology, they may go unrecognised. It has been suggested by Smith (1992) that we cannot isolate and analyse instantaneous occurrences in archaeology and even if we could (as is sometimes the case with micromorphology) how do we decide what to analyse? The picture becomes so complicated I wonder if we can ever have a ‘true’ understanding of the archaeological record. Of course the answer is always, ‘it depends’. We can observe deposits at higher and higher resolutions, but the resolution that is necessary depends on specific research objectives.

Unlike specialisms such as zooarchaeology and lithic analysis where you can handle the bones and stones, pointing to features, however subtle, and explain your interpretations, my speciality lies in the unseen, the hidden worlds, the intangible. Explaining is not as straightforward. Explaining the importance of microarchaeological research and being transparent in how you arrived at an interpretation requires the visual. Under the microscope stratigraphy becomes differentiated, the relationships between components within a deposit become apparent and the mechanisms by which materials ended up in their positions can be directly observed in a way that is simply not possible at the macroscale.

Like single context archaeology, one of microarchaeology’s greatest contributions lies in sites with well-preserved stratigraphy and architectural features (Morgan 2010), and its true value can only come from collaboration between specialisms, and considering the sediment as part of the assemblage along with all the other materials we uncover. The sediments can speak their own stories about people in the past, but they also provide important constraints on the myriad of possible interpretations of other artefact and ecofact assemblages, going some way towards reducing their equifinality. It can be disheartening being the specialist whose greatest contribution is in pointing out the taphonomic problems with a favoured interpretation. Luckily, the beauty of the world under the microscope (mostly) makes up for its frustrations.

Bailey, G. 2007. Time perspectives, palimpsests and the archaeology of time. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, vol 26, no. 2, pp. 198-223.

Colleen, M. 2010. Where is single context archaeology? [blog post]

Matthews, W. 1998. Report on sampling strategies, microstratigraphy and micromorphology of depositional sequences, and associated ethnoarchaeology at Çatalhöyük Çatalhöyük Archive Report.

Schiffer, M.B. 1987. Formation Processes of the Archaeological Record. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque

Shillito, L-M. 2013. Archaeology Under the Microscope. The Post Hole.

Smith, M.E. 1992. Braudel’s temporal rhythms and chronology theory in archaeology in A. Bernard Knapp (ed) Archaeology, Annales, and Ethnohistory. Cambridge University Press pp.23-34.

Tracing the Past under the Microscope

Andrew Roddick

Lisa Marie’s reflections highlight the analytical quandaries, the frustrations, but also the new interpretive and aesthetic worlds that open up through the microscopic gaze. This exploration of the unseen and intangible might be considered as an exploration of the trace, an archaeological element of an entirely different scale than the impressive houses and mounds at Çatalhöyük. Rosemary Joyce (2006: 15) contrasts the trace, which is subtle and contextual, with the monumental, which are those realms of material culture with external hierarchies of value meant to convey sets of meanings over time.  Joyce argues our job is to work at “rematerializ[ing] traces of practices in the past” (Joyce 2012: 121). Such rematerializing requires the specialized tools, learned techniques, and careful theoretical insight and reflection, all essential to our modern disciplinary practice.

As a ceramicist I have been thinking recently about the relationship between my craft of archaeology and those craft producers in the deeper past who produced the vessels I study, and the traces I follow. Just as potters transformed into clay into a vessel through learned technical practice, the pottery is transformed again as it enters my laboratory. I must first decide which traces of the past I’m interested in following, as this choice will determine the next step of the transformation; the sample must be cut either vertically, horizontally or tangentially, each of which will produce distinct traces.  Each step in following these traces also introduces new problems: Are these micro structural traces evidence of clay mixing, or simply bioturbation? These mundane objects introduce monumental issues at the microscale. But like Lisa Marie, these moments are disrupted by aesthetic appreciation, producing a kind of pause similar to that of a sun setting over an important monumental heritage site. Exhibits by archaeological scientists such as David Killick ( suggests there may be reason to invite a much larger public to peer down the microscope with us, demonstrating the beauty behind even behind the dirt beneath your mat, or the awe in an old clay pot.

Joyce R. A. 2006. The monumental and the trace: archaeological conservation and the materiality of the past. In Agnew N and Bridgland J (editor) Of the Past, for the Future: Integrating Archaeology and Conservation. Los Angeles: Getty Conservation Institute, 13-18.

Joyce R. A. 2012. Life With Things: Archaeology and Materiality. In Shankland D (ed.) Archaeology and Anthropology: Past, Present and Future. Proceedings of the British Association of Social Anthropologists. London: Berg Publishers, 119-132.

El tiempo lo aguanta todo by Leyla Cárdenas
El tiempo lo aguanta todo by Leyla Cárdenas

The Microarchaeological Eye

Colleen Morgan

What is a context/archaeological unit? How can archaeologists deal with stratigraphic deposits that are too fine to feel, that disappear under the trowel? I find myself alternately defending the craft of archaeological excavation and now, wondering if field archaeologists are actually equipped to excavate at all. Lisa-Marie Shillito’s microlayers: fingerprints, the stroke of a paintbrush, the dust under the mat, a breath, the barest whisper of a deposit, are terrifyingly ephemeral. How soon until we are able to excavate a painting stroke by stroke, unmaking masterpieces in reverse? Recent work in 3D printing fine art paintings by Tim Zaman may make this possible in the near future.

I spent a few days in January in the company of artists at the Van Eyck Institute as part of NEARCH, and after the lectures were done, we compared art practice and archaeology practice. How are we funded? Who is our audience? This process of making our professions intelligible was fascinating, but now I think we might have missed the main point. Archaeologists are un-doers, unravellers of the skein of time, picking out the stitches, ruining the weft. Perhaps that is why some of us refuse to re-knit the past back together again, it is too personal, we are too inexperienced and can only produce a vague, warped parody of the original.

Still, I think about the gestures involved in unpainting a painting. The tiny, precise swipe of the removal of a stipple. The broad slash, peeling off a jagged stroke. What would the Harris Matrix of a Mondrian look like? Squares and lines and red on black? Would the reverse-Pollock matrix be a tangled cloud? How does our arcane, chronologic, geography of a site describe and inscribe the parameters of human action?

One of the artists, Leyla Cárdenas at the Jan Van Eyck Academy specialized in a kind of microstratigraphic excavation. She peeled apart layers of paint, pried apart wallpaper to make an exploded stratigraphy of sites. She is interested in palimpsest, in sections sawed through art. I wonder if there is a microarchaeological movement in art?


CRAFT copy

William Caraher is organizing a series on Archaeology & Craft. From his Call for Posts:

From my perspective there are three significant issues involving craft in archaeology (but I’m sure there are more!):

1. Craft in the Field. How and where do craft approaches exist in archaeological practice and how have recent trends in archaeological methodology limited the influence of traditional craft approaches to field practice (for better or for worse). In craft, the master craftsman has intellectual and bodily control over the entire productive process. How do we reconcile craft modes of archaeological production with those grounded in more industrial modes?

2. Craft in the Discipline. While the modes of knowledge production associated with craft have sometimes taken on a nostalgic glow in recent years, they can also carry forward a set of deeply conservative attitudes regarding access to the field (both literally and figuratively) and the authority to produce archaeological knowledge. In many cases, the authority within a system of craft derives from vaguely defined notions of “expertise” and “experience” which while important in archaeological work, tend to reinforce hierarchical social arrangement and privilege certain groups who have had traditional access to field work opportunities, material, and the previous generation of archaeological masters (e.g. old, white, men). In contrast, in professional archaeological knowledge is a product of rigorous adherence to modern, industrial, field practices (often mediated by technology) which could be acquired through the study of published work on methodology. This had the advantage of opening of the discipline to a wider group of practitioners by undermining field practices that reproduced traditional social hierarchies. Do appeals to archaeology as craft present real risks for archaeology as a discipline?

3. Craft and Technology. In recent years, it appears that archaeology’s increasing engagement with technology would bring about a revolution in field and publication practices. With more data collected in more sophisticated way and at a faster rate, technological changes has accelerated the slow process of field documentation. This has ensure that we have more information from our time in the field, and less time for the deliberate and contemplative aspects of the archaeologist craft. I realize that juxtaposing craft with practices mediate by technology is not entirely fair or accurate; at the same time, I can think of few technologies used regularly in archaeological work that explicitly reinforce the kind of haptic, embodied knowledge of traditional archaeological experience. Does archaeology used technology in such a way to marginalize opportunities for engagements grounded in craft?

For more information, read the rest of his post here:

Contributions will be ongoing, to submit please contact billcaraher [at] gmail [dot] com

DEADLINE EXTENDED: The Senses and Aesthetics of Archaeological Science

The deadline for the THEN DIG issue, the Senses and Aesthetics of Archaeological Science has been extended.

Please see the original call for posts here:

Submissions of no more than 750 words are due June 1st. Submissions in the form of images, music, video, and other multimedia are welcomed with full-throated enthusiasm. Your submission will be subjected to open peer review before being posted on Then Dig.

Please send your submissions to:

*Banua, *panua, fenua: An Austronesian conception of the sociocosmic world

By Dr. Sophie Chave-Dartoen, University of Bordeaux

The aim of this short communication is to argue that mobility is a founding principle of Austronesian languages, social ensembles, conceptions of land, country and landscape, all of which are signified by reflexes of the Proto-Malayo-Polynesian term *banua. The complex relationships encapsulated in this term should be carefully studied in their social, cultural, experiential and cognitive dimensions.

Most of Island South-East Asia and Oceania share some common cultural traits (ritual dyads, primogeniture, ranked siblings according to their age and gender, stranger-kings, house and canoe-shaped social organisations, and so on) generally linked with common ancient linguistic features that have been reconstructed as “proto-Austronesian”. The spread of the language is thought to be correlated with the movement of people who came a few millennia ago from southern China all the way down to Island Melanesia and, as a new cultural complex (Lapita), to Remote Oceania and Polynesia.

For almost two centuries, the relative cultural homogeneity one can still perceive in spite of the local variations made the Pacific Islands a focus for cultural history, evolutionary anthropology and human ecology (Spriggs 2008). Archaeology was one of the tools used to trace these migrations, using material remains such as pottery, basalt artefacts, obsidian flakes, bones, charcoal, pollen, and agricultural features. Kirch (1982) inferred that, at least for the Polynesian area, population has been sustained by an agricultural complex (techniques, seeds, animals) called a “transported landscape”, following Anderson. This proposal strengthened the materialist constraint-based hypothesis about migratory processes such as the quest for land and food resources or the quest for prestige goods (shells, whale teeth, feathers). Lately, a more cultural paradigm called “frontier ideology” has been proposed by Bellwood (1996): the young siblings of the chiefs would have been inclined to make their way to new islands in order to get political autonomy and establish their own dynasties.

These hypotheses may be valid, but probably underestimate the mobility of societies, many of which are still involved in wide and long lasting exchange networks (D’Arcy 2006). They also ignore other aspects of these societies such as their socio-cosmic organisation (Coppet 1990), which can be defined by the entanglements of the social world (the living, their social institutions and environments) with the cosmos (dead ancestors, the deities and the cosmos that they share with their human descendants). If the fertility of the land, the perpetuation of life and the efficiency of actions depend on the ancestors’ benevolence, conversely, the destiny and empowerment of the gods and ancestors rest on appropriately executed rituals. In this type of configuration – I personally studied the Wallisian case (Chave-Dartoen 2000) – rituals rule the life of the people and the order of the universe (Reuter 2006). In other words, the universe is made social, and social groups would not migrate without the “devices” (names, stones, plants or animals) necessary to transplant their cosmos to new islands, in part or whole. According to Blust (1987) the reconstructed PMP term *banua refers to this kind of conceptual entity: a fertile, life providing land, where a society (or part of a society) develops in mutual custodianship with the ancestors, a cosmos made social.

Different anthropological propositions (within the Austronesian world or outside it) may be useful in order to grasp the complexities of the multiple cultural and cognitive dimensions involved in such a concept. Fox (1997), for instance, traces a direct link between the way Austronesian languages locate things and events, personal and social experience. Ingold (2000) proposed that “landscapes” should be understood as an embodiment of the space, the practices and the temporalities that organize it for the people who experience it. Munn (1996) insists on the fact that, for Warlpiri Aborigines, the very presence of the ancestors is perceived in the landscape and organises practices and experience of it. Most ethnographies about the societies of Oceania agree that, despite the mutations of these socio-cosmic worlds and of their institutions, they perpetuate the condensed forms that *banua – and its reflexes designates. This term refers to the organization of the relationships between the living and the dead, the local society, its land, its cosmos, and the different levels (experience, language, ritual) of its environment’s internalisation, embodiment and expression.



BELLWOOD P. (1996) – Hierarchy, Founder Ideology and Austronesian Expansion, FOX J., SATHER C. (dir.). Origins, ancestry and alliance: explorations in Austronesian ethnography, Canberra, ANU E Press, p. 18-40.

BLUST R. (1987) – Lexical Reconstruction and Semantic Reconstruction : the Case of Austronesian “House” Words, Diachronica, 4, 1, p. 79-106.

CHAVE-DARTOEN S. (2000) – ‘Uvea (Wallis) Une société de Polynésie occidentale, étude et comparaison, Thèse de doctorat en Anthropologie Sociale et Ethnologie, EHESS, Paris, 846 pages.

COPPET (de) D. (1990) – The Society as an Ultimate Value and the Socio-cosmic Configuration, Ethnos, 55, 3-4, p. 140-150.

D’ARCY P. (2006) – The People of the sea. Environment, Identity, and History in Oceania. Honolulu, University of Hawai’i press, 292 pages.

INGOLD T. (2000) – The Temporality of the Landscape, The Perception of the Environment: Essays in Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill, London and New York, Routeledge, p. 189-208 [publication initiale (1993) The Temporality of the Landscape, World archaeology, 25, 2].

KIRCH P.V. (1982) – The Impact of the Prehistoric Polynesians on the Hawaiian Ecosystem, Pacific Science, 36, p. 1-14.

MUNN N. (1996) – Excluded spaces : The figure in the Australian Aboriginal Landscape, Critical Inquiry, 22, 3, p. 446-465.

REUTER Th. (dir.) (2006), Sharing the Earth, Dividing the Land: Land and Territory in the Austronesian world, Canberra, ANU E Press, 385 pages.

SPRIGGS M. (2008) – Are Islands Islands? Some Thoughts on the History of Chalk and Cheese, Terra Australis, 29, (Islands of Inquiry : Colonisation, Seafaring and the Archaeology of Maritime Landscapes), p. 211-226.


Some thoughts on the past and future of archaeological mapping in Polynesia

By Dr. James Flexner, The Australian National University

In a thought-provoking paper, Bowden and McOmish (2011) identify a “British tradition” of field archaeology, which they apply specifically to the careful mapping of archaeological earthworks, a practice that they claim is unique in its capturing of not only space, but time in the landscape. Many archaeologists will take issue with the idea that only British archaeologists do “field archaeology”, but I think this misses the point of the paper. Rather, I take this as a challenge to further explore the disciplinary histories of the regions in which we work. In doing so, we might understand a bit better why archaeological practice takes the form that it does, and we might uncover some of the unstated assumptions behind both theory and method in many of the regions in which we work.

Mapping a Polynesian landscape.
Mapping a Polynesian landscape (Photo by Robert Flexner).

Is there a “Polynesian tradition” of field archaeology, and how can we trace its evolution through time? Before the 1950s, archaeologists assumed there wasn’t much of interest in Polynesia. The region for the most part lacked the pottery that in the pre-radiocarbon era was the mainstay for archaeological dating. Most archaeologists thought it was thus impossible to say anything about the origin and spread of Polynesian culture. One result was a focus on documenting and mapping stone structures throughout the region.

Kenneth Emory (e.g. 1928, 1934) believed that you could trace the migration and development of Polynesian cultures through the variability of ritual sites called marae in many Polynesian languages (heiau in Hawaiian). Emory’s maps were often schematic in nature, interpreting ritual spaces to show their most important features. (for an example of this style, see Plate I from Danielsson 1952). The arrangements of stone features were used as evidence for Emory’s theories of Polynesian origins and migrations.

Emory’s Native Hawaiian research assistant, Henry E. P. Kekahuna, produced plan maps of sites throughout the Hawaiian Islands in the 1950s that foreshadowed the state of the art for Polynesian archaeology (a selection of these stunning maps have been made available online by the B.P. Bishop Museum). Kekahuna recorded Hawaiian stone construction in great detail, often relating specific features to his knowledge of Hawaiian ethnohistory, which is an ongoing practice in Hawaiian archaeology. Kekahuna also included relevant ethnobotanical details on the maps, reflecting an early interest in environmental archaeology, which would characterise much of the work to come from the 1960s onwards.

The development of the “settlement pattern approach”, pioneered by Roger Green in the 1960s (e.g. Green and Davidson, eds. 1969; Green et al. 1967), was something of a revolution for Polynesian archaeology. The theoretical development is accompanied by a notable turn in the representation of archaeological landscapes, as the focus shifted from individual ritual sites to entire landscapes, including agricultural features, domestic sites, and the temples and shrines that had been the staple of Polynesian archaeology.

As the settlement pattern approach developed over the last 50 years in Polynesia, hand drawn plan maps produced in the field have become the standard, based on close observations recording a range of features in great detail, often down to the individual stone. These plans often show the overlapping layers of human modification of the landscape, what Polynesian archaeologists sometimes call the palimpsest of stone structures going from the present to the past, which can be read from the map.

Plan map of a Hawaiian domestic site, Kalaupapa, Molokai.
Plan map of a Hawaiian domestic site, Kalaupapa, Molokai.

In the 21st century, there has been a shift back to more schematic mapping style, largely correlating with technological shifts, notably the nearly ubiquitous use of hand-held GPS units for archaeological survey. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as GPS has allowed for the recording of thousands of previously undocumented sites and features throughout Polynesia. However, if we rely solely on these schematic maps, or if we record these landscapes too hastily, we risk missing out on important features that can tell us new things about the Polynesian past.

We should be careful not to overlook the importance of being able to read the palimpsest of features in the landscape, especially in training future generations of Pacific archaeologists. Further, as Ballard (2013) points out, drawings, including maps, have an under-utilised potential as a tool for engaging in a dialogue with local communities about the work we do as anthropologists and archaeologists. This is where an understanding of our field mapping traditions becomes so important. If we recognise the crucial role that cartographic techniques have played in the evolution of our understanding of Polynesian archaeology, we will be better placed to use all of the technologies at our fingertips, the new alongside the old, for another century of exciting discoveries in the region.

Note of acknowledgement: My trip to Paris was funded by an Early Career Researcher Travel Award from the Australian National University. Colleen Morgan deserves my thanks for the invitation to guest-edit Then Dig. Frédérique Valentin and Guillaume Molle organised the conference in Paris from which this post was distilled.


Ballard, Chris 2013 The Return of the Past: On Drawing and Dialogic History. The Asia-Pacific Journal of Anthropology 14(2): 136-148.

Bowden, Mark, and David McOmish 2011 A British Tradition? Mapping the Archaeological Landscape. Landscapes 2:20-40.

Danielsson, Bengt 1952 A recently discovered marae in the Tuamotu Group. Journal of the Polynesian Society 61(3/4): 222-229.

Emory, Kenneth P. 1928 Archaeology of Nihoa and Necker Islands. Bernice P. Bishop Museum Bulletin No. 12, B.P. Bishop Museum, Honolulu.

Emory, Kenneth P. 1934 Tuamotuan Stone Structures. Bernice P. Bishop Museum Bulletin No. 118, B.P. Bishop Museum, Honolulu.

Green, Roger C., and Janet Davidson (editors) 1969 Archaeology in Western Samoa. Vol. 1, Auckland Institute and Museum, Auckland.

Green, Roger C., Kaye Green, Roy A. Rappaport, Ann Rappaport, and Janet Davidson 1967 Archaeology on the Island of Mo’orea, French Polynesia. Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History 51(2), American Museum of Natural History, New York.

Archaeological Attempt to Deal with Anthropological Issues: Investigating Societies through the Study of Techno-economic Activities

By Dr. Aymeric Hermann, University of French Polynesia

Before States, there were kingdoms. Before kingdoms, there were chiefdoms. The organization and characteristics of these societies has been a major topic of anthropological research. The islands of Oceania have always been considered as a favored place for analyzing the establishment, the organization and the variability of chiefdoms in terms of structure and evolution through time.

Archaeological remains: a twisted way to look at human societies

Complex aspects of human societies (institutions, concepts and symbolic values) are always quite difficult to approach through archaeological data, which are material remains (artefacts, architecture, traces, etc.). Nonetheless, through the study of those vestiges – otherwise referred to as “material culture” – it is possible to reconstruct the way past societies used to live, and to identify the practical choices that people made for interacting with their environment and living together.

In order to connect objects and material vestiges with social facts, one must be able to reconstruct a difficult puzzle: more than treasures, archaeological remains must be seen as an account of the activities undertaken within a given society. Those activities can be related to the purchase of raw material and goods, transformation processes for the production of those goods, and the use or consumption of those goods.

Without reducing social life to its material conditions, it seems quite obvious now that the dialectic between material and non-material aspects of cultures is a key to understanding the functioning and the development of human societies. There are two ways of dealing with material culture in order to understand its relationships with socio-economic organization: focusing on the ‘making’ (that is the production processes, and the social organization structure and the relationships embedded in the technical system) or on the ‘doing’ (that is the cultural practices of exchanging and manipulating objects).

Technology as an insight to social patterns

In the course of my PhD, I tried to investigate both making and doing, focusing on archaeological adze production and exchange within traditional communities in Tubuai, a small island (25km in circumference) located in the Australs, the southernmost archipelago of French Polynesia. In Oceania, adzes are a central element of the material culture used in all kinds of activities related to wood working in the every-day life. Because there is generally no usable ore for tool making in Polynesia, adze blades were primarily made of volcanic rock, though shell adzes are also known from the region. These were then lashed to a wooden handle with vegetable fibers. Some adzes represented a symbol of power for chiefs and were exchanged within ceremonial inter-island networks.

Stone adze blade from Tubuai.
Stone adze blade from Tubuai.

The analysis of the Tubuai collections highlighted different ways to shape adze blades and therefore different know-how due to a higher degree of specialization for some knappers. Geochemical characterizations of the rocks used in tool manufacture show that good quality raw material and stone blades produced by experts are unevenly distributed within the island communities. Stone tools coming from distant islands were found within some of the oldest occupation layers in Tubuai. Those different discoveries led to the conclusion that key materials and valued goods were monopolized by a part of the island’s population. In light of previous anthropological work, we know that control over production and exchange systems was conducted by social elites. The centralization of Polynesian traditional economy around political and religious leaders is actually a general trend of historical evolution of Polynesian chiefdoms towards more hierarchical organization.

Societies as systems

Unlike today’s mainstream idea, economic activities are not only being led by the laws of supply and demand and rational calculation of costs and benefits. On the contrary, anthropological studies show that economy and techniques are also determined by cultural choices and social organization. Indeed, before the ‘Market societies’ technical and economic activities were much more embedded with social, political, or else religious institutions. But even though economic actions in our modern industrialized world seem to be fully independent from – and moreover dominating – the cultural context in which they take place, one must see that they are related to socio-cultural patterns (individualism, hyperspecialization of workers, intensive consumption of goods and services, etc.). Modern globalization is not just the liberalization of markets; it also involves the diffusion of certain practices, concepts and technologies. The choices made in traditional societies regarding production processes and inter-community exchange systems are related to the emergence and development of socio-political structures. In the same way, the future of our globalized world is not determined only by economic perspectives but also by political and cultural choices. The ‘end of History’is not for tomorrow!


Hermann A., 2013, Les industries lithiques pré-européennes de Polynésie centrale : savoir-faire et dynamiques techno-économiques, Ph.D. dissertation, University of French Polynesia, 420 pp.

Kirch P.V., 1984, The evolution of the Polynesian chiefdoms, Cambridge University Press, 314 pp.

Mauss M., 1966, The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies, London: Cohen & West, 130 pp. (see the notion of ‘total social fact’, pp 76-77)

Oliver D.L., 1974, Ancient Tahitian society, University Press of Hawaii, 1419 pp.

Polanyi K., 2001, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time, Boston: Beacon Press, 317 pp.

Sahlins M., 1972, Stone Age Economics, Chicago: Aldine-Atherton, 348 pp.

“Bones and Sand”: Archaeology of the Dunes in Marquesas Islands, French Polynesia

By Dr. Guillaume Molle, University of French Polynesia

“Beautiful paradise shores”, is how they were described by the first western explorers who rediscovered, sometimes tragically, the Marquesas Islands from the 17th century (Dening 1980). But the true history of these island societies didn’t start, nor stop, at this moment. It began nearly eight centuries before when some canoes coming from the West landed on these same shores bringing small groups of Polynesians who settled and established thereafter in this archipelago a rich, though intriguing, culture.

Regarding the ecology and geography of the Marquesas, with its rugged topography consisting in deep valleys with no coastal plains, the sand dunes played there the role of interface between land and sea, and appeared to be ideal locations for a first human settlement as they provide easy access to both marine and terrestrial resources. Not only are they favorable places for fishing or shell gathering, dunes are also the spots for departures and arrivals of the canoe trips to other valleys and neighboring or distant islands which communities maintain relations with, for exchanging basalt adzes as well as going to war. For these reasons, they have been occupied throughout the whole of Marquesan prehistory and even beyond, until today. As such, the dunes are among the preferred locations for archaeologists because they offer long-term sequences that open windows on all the periods. Furthermore, their natural drainage favors a good preservation of the artefacts.

I came myself to excavate sand dunes when I started to work on Ua Huka Island, as part of my PhD in archaeology at the University of French Polynesia (Molle 2011). Located in the northern group, this small island proves particularly important because of Hane, a site that was excavated in 1964-65 by Y. Sinoto, a leading archaeologist of his time, which provided some old dates that were used to define a first colonization model of East Polynesia. Since the early 1990s, my colleagues and I have conducted more research, especially on the dune systems on the south shore, and over 20 years of intensive excavations, we came to document almost all of them.

Fig.1 : Map of Ua Huka showing the locations of the main dune systems on the South shore.
Fig.1 : Map of Ua Huka showing the locations of the main dune systems on the South shore.

One of the most interesting and challenging points to me here is to compare the different coastal sequences in order to reconstruct a global history of the island. It brought us to realize that the functions of these sites have evolved through time. Let’s take a look at a few compelling examples.

On the Hane dune site, the lowest levels we excavated in 2009 provided the oldest dates of occupation in the archipelago as well as in French Polynesia, proving now that the human colonization of these islands took place by the 10th century A.D. The coastal areas were then frequented by small groups mainly relying on the exploitation of marine resources. Later, by around 1200 A.D., the Marquesans started to build in the dunes’ areas some large stone dwelling platforms called paepae that supported houses built in perishable materials. It indicates, both in Hane and Manihina, the will to develop a long-term occupation in these coastal hamlets and as such, a shift in lifeways. Then, after a temporary abandonment of the dunes and the beginning of the settlement in the valleys, the groups came back on the shores but mostly to bury their dead. Manihina and Hane were thus turned into cemeteries between the 14th and 16th centuries A.D. (Conte and Molle, in press).

But other specific functions can be put into evidence. Located in the south-west, Hatuana Bay is known in oral traditions to be the soul-jumping off spot towards Hawaiki, the original and sacred land of the Polynesians, a symbolic importance also demonstrated by the numerous petroglyphs discovered in the vicinity. The area turned into a lookout to prevent enemies coming from Nuku Hiva from the 17th century, a period during which we see an intensification of warfare in the Marquesas (Molle and Conte 2011).

Fig.2 : Hatuana bay (photo G.Molle).
Fig.2 : Hatuana bay (photo G.Molle).

By giving us the opportunity to identify series of key-markers or events, the dunes provides us with precious information about the way people used to live, move, fish, defend themselves, pray or bury their dead. As they have been occupied almost constantly, dune sites constitute the best records of temporal changes in Marquesan culture and provide a useful framework for interpreting its evolution.

In the recent years, the Hane dune site became a sitting place for watching soccer games during week-ends, but the inhabitants were far from imagining what was lying beneath them, just a few centimeters under the surface: a giant sandbox encompassing the whole history of their ancestors. What’s better for an archaeologist than to play the game of History on these beautiful shores?


Conte E. and G. Molle, in press. Reinvestigating a Key-Site for Polynesian Prehistory: New Results from the Hane Dune Site, Ua Huka (Marquesas). Archaeology in Oceania.

Dening G., 1980. Islands and Beaches. Discourse on a Silent Land. Marquesas 1774-1880. Honolulu : The University Press of Hawaii.

Molle G., 2011. Ua Huka, une île dans l’Histoire. Histoire pré- et post-européenne d’une société marquisienne. Tahiti : University of French Polynesia, PhD Thesis, 2 vols.

Molle G. and E. Conte, 2011. New Perspectives on the Occupation of Hatuana Dune Site, Ua Huka, Marquesas Islands. Journal of Pacific Archaeology vol.2(2), pp.103-108.